Niyo: After being embarrassed, it's sink or swim time for Wolverines

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — When you start taking on water, you’ve generally got two choices. You can bail water. Or you can simply bail.

For Michigan’s football team, after Saturday’s hull-smashing at Wisconsin, that’s now the question at hand. Which way are they going to go? That was to be addressed at a team meeting Monday afternoon, and then soon after that on the practice field.

The Wolverines’ next opponent is Rutgers, yes. But the more dangerous foe right now might be themselves, whether it’s self-doubt that sets in after a sloppy start to the season or the kind of splintering that often follows a crack like the one Jim Harbaugh & Co. felt in Madison.

“It’s early in the season  there’s no reason to be panicking,” insisted senior linebacker Khaleke Hudson, one of the Wolverines’ three captains this season. “We know what we’ve got to do and we know what we can do.”

But saying and doing are two very different things, and if Michigan hasn’t figured that out by now, well, maybe the situation really is as dire as some fans and former players are suggesting.

Harbaugh, for his part, said the right things Monday, offering no excuses in a rather honest appraisal of Saturday’s 35-14 loss to the Badgers.

Not that he had much choice, mind you.

“We saw it, you saw it, the entire football world saw it,” he said. “It wasn’t good enough. It’s not acceptable.”

Not tough enough

Not for a team that came into the season welcoming high expectations. ("That's where I'd pick us," Harbaugh said at Big Ten media days when asked about the Michigan being picked to win the conference.) And certainly not for Harbaugh, who is in his fifth season running this program, coaching all his own recruits.

To get manhandled like that in the Big Ten opener  coming off a bye week, no less — was embarrassing to all involved.

“We didn’t play physical enough, we were outhustled  I take responsibility for that,” said Harbaugh, whose record against ranked opponents at Michigan fell to 8-11 overall, and 1-6 on the road. “In any ways that we were out-schemed, also take responsibility for that. It’s my job to make sure that we’re completely sound in all offenses, defenses, everything that we’re running.”

Wisconsin gashed Michigan's defense for 487 yards and five rushing scores on Saturday.

Speaking of running, the Wolverines admit they didn’t do enough of it against Wisconsin. And they're not just talking about the 19 carries for a measly 40 yards in the box score. Whatever the reasons were Saturday  from a deflating first-quarter fumble to those missed fits on defense  the effort was flagging, and the film didn’t lie.

“Effort is something that you can’t coach,” senior offensive tackle Jon Runyan said Monday. “It’s kind of a personal business decision you make. … And looking back on the film  not trying to call anyone out  but, yeah, I feel like there were some plays where the effort could’ve been better.”

Presumably, there will be some calling out behind closed doors. And Harbaugh did say the intensity will be ratcheted up even higher than normal in practice this week, with an emphasis on “physicality” and “toughness” and “hustle.” He also promised an emphasis on “playing the players that are dedicated to playing physically and hustling  hustling at all times,” he added. “Get those players in the ballgame.”

So we’ll see how that plays out when Michigan takes the field again Saturday.

In the meantime, injuries are piling up. Quarterback Shea Patterson is “probable” despite a right shoulder issue, while backup Dylan McCaffrey is doubtful after suffering a concussion. So is tight end Sean McKeon with a leg injury, and linebacker Josh Ross had his foot in a walking boot after Saturday’s loss.

'A lot to prove'

The critics are piling on, too, after another embarrassing loss on national television.

“But all that outside talk doesn’t really matter,” Hudson said, shrugging. “This is our team.

"The discussion has been, ‘Just stay together.' One loss doesn’t define us. We had one loss last year and we ended up going on a 10-game win streak.”

This is true, of course. But last year’s season-opening loss at Notre Dame was nowhere near as humbling, or as “thorough,” to use Harbaugh’s phrasing. And aside from the obvious questions about schematics or play-calling or roster depth at certain positions, there’s no way to know just yet whether this team has the moxie  or the leadership — to rally the way last year’s team did, rattling off 10 consecutive wins before collapsing in Columbus with the Big Ten East title on the line.

Say what you will about the way that 2018 team exited last season  or how NFL aspirations might’ve influenced it  but that group did respond when challenged in September. They threw down the gauntlet publicly, defiantly stood their ground on enemy turf, and they played with an edge.

How this group reacts remains to be seen. Are they all-in with Harbaugh and this coaching staff? Do they truly believe in their quarterback? Is that highly touted 2017 recruiting class ready to live up to its hype? Or are some of those players ready to check out?

We may not learn the answers to those questions against a team like Rutgers this week, but Michigan will find out what it's made of  sink or swim?  soon enough.

“We’ve got a long season left,” Hudson said. “We’ve got a lot of football to play. We’ve got a lot of things to prove. And this is the time.”

Rutgers at Michigan 

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/950

Records: No. 20 Michigan 2-1 (0-1 Big Ten); Rutgers 1-2 (0-1)

Line: Michigan by 27.5

Twitter: @JohnNiyo